Life as a Literary Ethnographer

Laura McAleese Laura McAleese, Research

A Weekend of Field Research at StAnza International Poetry Festival in St Andrews

When researching literary festivals, you cannot rely simply on press cuttings and written accounts. Literary festivals happen. Every one or two years, people come together in a town, city, square or venue to listen to readings, perform their own work, develop skills in workshops, meet up with old friends or make new ones. Therefore, as a researcher, I must travel to selected festivals to collect material on-site. As a literary scholar trained to pour over books and manuscripts in windowless archives, conducting field researching the ‘real world’ is a giant step – I become a festival ethnographer. As I am currently focusing on Scottish literary festivals, I visited StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, which took place from 1st to 5th March 2017. As a novice ethnographer, I had to find answers to central concerns long before the actual field trip: Which questions and items do I want to explore on which day? Which readings do I attend?  When do I explore the festival grounds? How do I record my impressions? When and where do I take pictures? Do I have to seek permission to record events? When does the actual field research begin?

The final question is far from trivial. For me personally, it is important that there comes a point in time where I consciously step out of my everyday life, which includes my academic desk work (preparation for the field trip) as well as recreational activities, and into the field. On my trip to StAnza in March, the break was marked by the train journey from Edinburgh to St Andrews. I used the change in location from my workplace in Frankfurt to St Andrews and the process of travelling to consciously switch from book scholar to field-researcher.


Am I not a literary scholar and critic when I go on a field trip? The answer is yes and no. It is impossible and indeed fruitless to completely exclude individual personality and preconceptions when entering the field. However, I set myself the task of recording impressions fromm the festival in a format that I can use as source material for my PhD thesis. Hence it is crucial that judgement and critique are suspended for the duration of the field research. I am at the festival to perceive and record as much of the festival action as I can, with all my senses – the smell of Scotch pies at the Poetry Café, the touch of stone installations of poetry in the garden of the Heritage Trust Museum, the sound of French poetry amplified by a stone-shaped speaker at the theatre entrance, amalgamated with the constant cry of the seagulls circling overhead and the chattering groups of festival visitors moving from one venue to the other.

There are different levels of involvement of the ethnographer in the scene of study, ranging from a full member of the community to a passive external observer. The degree of involvement most often has to do with personal affiliation to the community that you are observing. In my case, being a scholar and not a poet or editor puts me in an outside position: I watch what people around me are doing. But it’s not as simple an answer as it sounds. When I order a coffee at the venue bar, am I not interacting? When an interested member of the audience strikes up a conversation while waiting in the queue to a reading, do I answer as myself, with all my experiences and passions about poetry or excuse myself, as I have a job to do? Even sitting in the audience at a reading, listening and applauding, am I not part of the community I am supposed to observe?

In practice, each ethnographer resolves these issues surrounding personal involvement according to his or her research needs. My ethnographer persona will react differently from yours, creating as much involvement and distance as the research situation requires. It is important to train awareness to signals of over-involvement, uncomfortable passivity, tiredness and over-thinking in order to adapt your demeanour to suit the task. Yet in the theoretical account of such field visits, research reports and, in my case, a full PhD dissertation, these questions are key to presenting viable research results. As my main focus lies in collecting sense impressions as data for later interpretation, I opted to act as a predominantly passive, external ethnographer.

Perception is a large part of the battle, but how do I then record the vast amount of information? My preferred method is a combination of extensive hand-written field notes, photography and the collection of physical material. Instead of video recording, I favour immediately transferring my sense impressions into written words, which allows me the freedom of paying attention to the live action of a reading without worrying about technology. Again, this is down to personal preference, and every ethnographer has his or her own set of recording methods to suit their persona and research question. Photographs function as a visual reminder of how the festival spaces are arranged, which posters are hanging on which walls, how the venues are decorated for each event, where people gather at which time of the day. While photographs capture the more static visual elements, my field notes add the patterns of movement, sounds, smells, interactions… anything and everything that I perceive is written down. I take one of each flyer, information sheet and take-away poem I come across to take back to the office with me.


StAnza 2017 – Field Notes


Research survival kit:


  • A brand-new notebook
  • My favourite pen
  • A backup pen
  • A digital camera
  • A sandwich
  • Irn Bru (when in Scotland)
  • water
  • Chocolate
  • A plastic folder for flyers, handouts, etc.


I arrived on Saturday, 4th March, a busy festival day. When I entered the Byre Theatre, StAnza’s main venue, it was already heaving with people. The open glass and wooden construction of the foyer allowed all the different voices in multiple languages to resonate simultaneously in an aural polyglot – a fitting illustration of the theme of the 20th annual StAnza festival, “On the Road”. As the various groups of visitors conversed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were familiar with each other – a meeting with old and new friends at StAnza. I had researched the programme beforehand, especially the poetry installations in and around the Byre, therefore I immediately got out my camera to document the various display cases, photo walls, headphone booths and writer’s desks, collecting various leaflets, bookmarks and miniature poems along the way. Shortly before heading upstairs, I made my first notes on atmosphere, decoration and groupings of people in the Byre Theatre. Then I climbed the stairs to the top floor to join the Poetry Café event in the smaller of the two main theatre venues. Poetry, pies and pints were in progress even before the doors were opened (the poet was late): each ticket holder could choose a complimentary local butcher’s pie, macaroni for the vegetarians, and a soft or alcoholic drink – Poetry Café, literally.


At the readings I attended, the main factor for defining the impact of the event was the StAnza audience. Whether faced with an entertaining author such as popular Scottish Makar Jackie Kay, the musical and textual frenzy of the Loud Poets ensemble or a placid reading by the poet in residence of the Cloud Appreciation Society, Catherine Towers, the audience rewarded the poets with appreciative murmurs after lines that resonated within them, warm applause after single poems, hearty laughter or even whooping and cheering.


The creative integration of poetry into everything – eating, drinking, resting, pondering, discussing, writing, creating, walking – brings the “on the road” credo to the forefront: Poems are carved into rocks and wooden artworks, school classes write poems on the theme of mountaineering, Scotland and the world are mapped out in poetry by recording poems in each language represented over 20 years of StAnza. Thus, poetry is included in our travels, our life journeys, freeing it from the restrictions of the page and reading or listening in enclosed spaces to an extent that we cannot leave it behind by closing the book or exiting the performance venue.

It struck me that in addition to the eager involvement of the festival audience, a large part of the StAnza spirit conjures and wavers outwith actual events: the conversations between poets, friends and readers, the audio and video installations in the Byre Theatre, the young ginger-haired man reading poetry aloud to pleasantly surprised visitors in the Byre Theatre foyer, the odd loose-leaf poem lying around in a St Andrews café, the orange umbrellas in the design of the original Penguin edition of Kerouac’s On The Road on display at book shops and venues – this is what makes StAnza special, what elevates the festival from a mere series of readings and workshops to a fully-fledged international poetry celebration.

So I roamed around St Andrews for the weekend, from venue to venue, from intimate readings to the sold-out main auditorium, from gardens to undercrofts, the town hall to the theatre. And StAnza makes it possible to experience poetry constantly from 10am to 10pm, every day for five days – sandwich, drinks and chocolate saved me from taking extensive breaks and missing out on the action in the field. Not until I was seated on the train to back to Edinburgh did I have time to reflect on my visit. In the glorious East Coast sunshine, I made my last observational notes, created file backups (!), was very busy at work… well, I mostly just reflected on StAnza as a whole, also thinking back to my visit to the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival, comparing location, authors invited, audience reactions…

And there I was in scholar-mode again, beginning the task that would occupy me over the weeks and months to come: sorting photos, analysing venues, comparing festival programmes, sifting through notes taken at specific readings. And hopefully, one day, a long time after field research and data analysis, I will connect the dots of this chunk of work that will become my dissertation on literary festivals.